Many years after 1975, I had the opportunity to see some of the posters that Indira Gandhi’s Congress used as propaganda for The Emergency. They came from the same school of writing as the Soviet Union’s Mother Russia propaganda, as though Mrs G’s department had taken creative writing classes from Glavlit and the GRU: “The Nation is on the Move! Emergency for a Stronger and More Prosperous Future!” And, ominously: “You Too Have a Role In The Emergency!”
35 years later, some of the Indian fiction written around the Emergency is iconic, some forgotten—and some still unpublished. A new graphic novel, Delhi Calm, attempts to recapture the days of the Turkman Gate riots and deaths, but it’s better journalism than literature. Here are some of the old classics:
Katraa Bi Arzoo, Rahi Masoom Raza: Written in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency, Rahi Masoom Raza’s searing, raw novel has not yet been translated to the best of my knowledge. You can’t leave this off a list of Emergency novels, though: Rahi Masoom Raza wrote this in a kind of white heat of rage, drawing on his experiences of Allahabad during the demolition-and-censorship years. His protagonist, Desh, offers initial resistance. By the end of the book, Desh has been reduced to a man who parrots one phrase over and over again, “Srimati Gandhi zindabad!” and will, like the country he stands for, be crushed under the wheels of a truck.
The Dark Dispatches/ The Night-Shift Reporter, Nirmal Verma: In his elliptical and evocative Raat Ka Reporter, Nirmal Verma never referred directly to the Emergency, choosing instead to depict the paranoia and confusion of the times through an internal journey into the mind of a journalist. This remains brilliant, if not always accessible for most readers.
Rich Like Us, Nayantara Sahgal: Perhaps Sahgal’s best-known novel, this took a wide sweep from the India of the 1930s to the darkness of the 1970s. Sahgal was one of the first writers to make the point that Sanjay Gandhi’s vasectomy programme affected chiefly those from the poorest and lowest castes—racial purity via sterilization. But it was Sahgal’s understanding of the politics of Delhi’s ruling classes, and how that filters into every aspect of our personal lives, that drove this novel.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie: It is sometimes forgotten that Rushdie has the instincts of the best journalists, investigating Turkman Gate during the Emergency, Trilokpuri in the aftermath of 1984. Midnight’s Children will remain perhaps the iconic novel of Emergency—and independent India—of all time, with its unforgettable portrait of Indira Gandhi as the Widow, her hair white on one side, black on the other. “…The Emergency, too, had white part—public, visible, documented, a matter for historians—and a black part which, being secret macabre untold, must be a matter of us.” Indira Gandhi took him to court for libel in the case of Gandhi vs Rushdie, and he had to delete a section that speculated on the death of her husband, Feroze Gandhi, from future editions of the book. As Rushdie’s protagonist Saleem Sinai notes, “Mother Indira really had it in for me.”
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: Eschewing Rushdie’s magical realism for a far more plain story-telling style, A Fine Balance was Mistry’s attempt to record the effects of the Emergency on the lives of people like us. As two tailors struggle for survival, they meet Dina and her nephew Maneck, and the unlikely quartet try to find “the fine balance between hope and despair”. With characters like Beggarmaster and a series of dramatic plot flourishes, including the forcible sterilization of the two tailors, A Fine Balance was excessively sentimental, but it remains a respectable documentary of the times.
Bedtime Story, Kiran Nagarkar: Performed a few times but never formally published, Nagarkar’s play Bedtime Story is one of the greater works to come out of that time. He used the Mahabharata as a way to understand the cold justification of violence and the doublespeak of that era, with the Chorus as a Nazi war criminal retelling four episodes from the epic. The censor board demanded an initial 78 cuts, which would have castrated the play with the efficiency of any of Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilization camps; performances were disrupted by right-wing parties for almost two decades. “As with most controversial writing,” said Nagarkar with some bitterness, “it became controversial mostly because nobody had read it.”